Iceland’s Blue Lagoon with the geothermal plant in the background. (Photo by Sally Betha)

The water was deliciously warm and welcoming as I eased my jet-lagged body into the pearly Blue Lagoon, rich in silica and other minerals. In the distance, I could see steam billowing from the geothermal power plant that provides the water source for this luxury spa: a nice side benefit from the industry that has helped transform Iceland into one of the most energy-resilient countries in the world. 

While a spa like the Blue Lagoon is a modern-day development, Icelanders have enjoyed soaking in geothermally warm, even hot, water since the nation’s settlement by Viking explorers in the 9th century. The cultural tradition continues today. There are nearly fifty natural hot springs and hundreds of geothermally heated swimming pools for the country’s population (370,000)—and increasing numbers of tourists. 

On a trip to Iceland with my family in early July, we found a spectacularly beautiful country that conveys a sense of calm and community. Preparing for the trip, I read about the island nation’s history and characteristics: the tough resilience of Icelanders; commitment to equality, inclusion, and justice; love of literature and storytelling; strong education and health systems; lack of violent crime; and responsive government. 

Yes, the winters are long and very dark; the weather is chilly even in the summer; and you can expect fiery, volcanic eruptions somewhere in the country every four to five years, on average. However, the much-proclaimed health and happiness of its residents seem to outweigh these “inconveniences”—at least to Iceland’s proud, hard-working people. 

Geography and Geology 

In Thingvellir National Park, we walked through the rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: the (mostly) underwater mountain chain located mid-ocean along the floor of the Atlantic. This seam in the Earth’s crust separates massive slabs of solid rock known as the North American, Eurasian, and African tectonic plates. Slowly, they move—along with the continents that ride them—a fact that was finally accepted by scientists in the 1960s. 

Created fairly recently, geologically speaking, from eruptions over a hotspot of molten rock, Iceland is the only place in the world where it’s possible to stand on dry land between two continental plates—as we did in Thingvellir. Here, the North American and Eurasian plates are drifting apart an inch every year. (Geophysicists have compared this to the rate that fingernails grow.) I’m still pondering our experience at this natural wonder, where we viewed gorges, fissures, and waterfalls created by extreme subsurface geologic mayhem. 

Last year, a volcanic eruption about twenty-five miles southwest of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, lasted for six months and drew hundreds of thousands of tourists to view the glowing magma and lava flows. It was the sixth volcanic eruption in the country in the past two decades. With a mixture of disappointment and relief, we didn’t feel a single tremor during our time in the country. 

From Fossil Fuels to Geothermal

At the turn of the 20th century, Iceland was one of Western Europe’s poorest countries, dependent upon peat and coal for its energy. Until the early 1970s, the largest share of the country’s energy consumption was derived from imported fossil fuels. In its isolated location—thirty miles below the Arctic Circle—the country needed a stable and secure domestic energy source to avoid oil price fluctuations caused by crises in the world energy markets. Innovation, transparency, public engagement, and a solutions-based mindset focused on local resources led the way. 

Today, Iceland is the world’s largest per capita producer of green energy and electric power. Its residents enjoy a high standard of living. Eighty-five percent of the country’s primary energy supply comes from domestic renewable resources: hydro (glacial rivers and waterfalls) and geothermal (underground steam and hot water). 

The main use of geothermal energy is for space heating, distributed to buildings—including ninety percent of Icelandic homes–through extensive networks of pipes. Fresh vegetables are grown through the cold, dark winters in geothermally heated and lighted greenhouses, as the power of volcanoes is transformed into tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and mushrooms. 

Embracing Innovation and the Future 

Despite its small size, homogeneous population, and vast geological assets, Iceland offers a model—certainly inspiration—for how to make a swift transition from fossil fuels to sustainable power sources. Its transportation and fishing industries still rely primarily on oil; however, electric vehicles are booming. Seventy percent of new cars in Iceland are EV or hybrid. 

Responsive, in the 1990s, to the needs of its economy and its people, the government moved quickly to expand its renewable portfolio with funding (research and exploration) and incentives for homeowners and energy-intensive industries. No incrementalism. No (apparent) deference to well-funded fossil fuel lobbyists. No single individual, like coal baron and U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, who refused to support climate legislation to curb global heating, until he did. In late July, Manchin dramatically reversed his position and agreed to cast a decisive vote for the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which includes more than $300 billion for clean energy investments. 

Instead, the country employed a seemingly open, solutions-oriented approach to do what appeared to be best for everyone: big business and small farmers. While local conditions determine which renewable resources are most efficient and cost-effective, Iceland’s success story is impressive. It is remarkable for such a small nation with limited financial resources at the time it made the bold (some might say risky) decision to move away from fossil fuels. 

A green transformation continues to unfold as Iceland’s leaders embrace change and innovation. Winters may be long and dark, but the country’s future looks bright with cheaper power costs, energy security, and a growing economy. As has been the tradition for more than a thousand years, communal hot springs continue to bring Icelanders and visitors together to calm body and mind.  

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.